Almost twenty years ago I was enamored with a game on my computer : Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. In it, Indy travels the world in search of the legendary lost city of Atlantis. One of the places the game takes you in search of the lost civilization is the Azores islands off of the coast of Portugal, alone in the north Atlantic ocean, citing a grammatical mistake by Plato that placed the location within the Mediterranean instead of beyond it. I had never heard of the Azores before but the peculiarity of its location (there is really nothing else around it) along with the fun I had imagining it was the location of the fabled lost city, added to my intrigue. Before I ever departed for my first solo adventure (to South America) I had already added the Azores to my “must visit” list; it took a while, but I finally got there.
The Azores are nine volcanic islands 850 miles west of the coast of Portugal and give the local culture a distinct personality apart from mainland Portugal. So much so that many Azoreans choose to live on the East Coast of the United States and see their ancestry as Azorean more than Portuguese. I was told that the recent attention the government of Portugal has given the islands is somewhat resented on account that it has only occurred after the recent boom in tourism has attracted additional revenue to the economy. Here are some additional fun facts as written by Stephanie Walden, my friend who visited two weeks prior:
I will just go ahead and attach the entire email-as-guide-and-recommendation that she compiled for me since I found it to be right on the mark with what I experienced and perceived while I was on Sao Miguel and Terceira. (minimal editing):
- Very minimal mosquitoes
- Amazing food! The soil here is volcanic and therefore very fertile a few things that grow particularly well: tea, pineapple, passion fruit, other fruits and produce. There is a ton of agriculture, so there are cows EVERYWHERE. Ubiquitous cows. It’s illegal to pump them full of hormones or antibiotics, and all the dairy is super fresh, which means amazing milk, cheese, yogurt, etc.
- The people are generally quite friendly and almost everyone speaks English
- It’s still cheap, though prices are expected to rise in the next few years (in the past two, land $$ has already risen about 6x)
- Temps in June have been pretty mild… ’70s. Might get hotter in July but so far it’s been nice, even a bit chilly at night
- The whole island is basically a giant groomed gardens stupid pretty and crazily well maintained
- You’ll definitely want to rent a car or a scooter/motorcycle. Benefits of a scooter or motorbike are: It’s beautiful to get around the island this way, easier to navigate some of the tiny/narrow roads, easier for parking. But, cars are better for when is rainy/for some of the steep side roads, and obviously they’re less dangerous. Up to you.A few other things to note:
- It’s a bit difficult to island hop among the nine islands. The main airport is on Sao Miguel, you can look into hopping on a free connection via SATA to one of the other islands (more info on this: http://www.geekyexplorer.com/azores-flights/)
- The ‘triangle islands’ are Sao Jorge, Pico, and Faial. You’ll have the easiest time hopping around these three; I think there are daily ferries in the summer. More info: http://www.azores.com/ferry.
- Most people seem to make Terceira and Sao Miguel home base. I think they might be the two most populated, but don’t quote me on that. Terceira is a bit quieter and not as many activities/not as developed. Apparently some parts are somewhat ghost towns… there’s a U.S. military base here that shrunk from about 4,000 soldiers+families to about 150, so many of the businesses folded. I’ve heard it’s supposed to be very chill though, a different vibe from Sao Miguel (more remote, laid back, etc.). The two islands have a bit of friendly competition going on
- From Sao Miguel, you can take a ferry (~3 hours) to Santa Maria, but schedule seems somewhat random (it’s not daily) so you may need to spend a few nights in SM if you want to do this. Somebody told me you can bring a scooter or motorbike on the ferry if you take this route. Santa Maria is known for having white (not black/volcanic) sand beaches
- Flores and Corvo are the most remote. I think Corvo only has about 500 residents on the island. Would probably be awesome to see, but definitely kind of a pain in the ass to get here esp. if you’re only staying 1.5 weeks.
- Whale watching (super touristy but they really have it down to a science; I think they see whales almost every time they go out and it’s majestic. We went with Moby Dick in Sao Miguel. I’d recommend maybe getting on one of the smaller boats though, because they’re right on the level with the whales. Pico also is supposed to have great whale watching.)
- There’s diving here, but it’s a bit complicated if you want to go out and see the big pelagics… it’s an all-day trip and $$$, goes about two hours offshore
- Hiking — a ton of trails (http://trails.visitazores.com/en). On Pico, there’s the highest peak (http://climbingpicoazores.blogspot.co.uk/)
- Explore the botanical gardens. I went to Antonio Borges in Ponta Delgada on a Sunday and basically had the whole garden to myself. This garden in Furnas is also worth the trip: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g1190881-d554492-Reviews-Terra_Nostra_Gardens-Furnas_Povoacao_Sao_Miguel_Azores.html
- Go see this waterfall: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g189134-d4086748-Reviews-Parque_Natural_da_Ribeira_dos_Caldeiroes-Sao_Miguel_Azores.html
- Go to the tea factory… free/open to the public. They’re still using machinery from like the 1800s, which is crazy to see: https://www.visitmaiazores.com/tea-factory
- Go to the Villa Franca islet during the week and during the morning (weekends and some weekday afternoons get crowded)… no need to stay more than an hour or so here but it’s kind of a cool thing to see
- Scooter or bike all over the islands: The main viewpoints are Sete Cidades (worth it), Lagoa de Fogo (definitely worth it), and Furnas (mostly worth it… this is where the hot spings/thermal pools are. Go on a day when there aren’t many clouds for the best views.
- Tasca — make reservations, in Ponta Delgada
- In Furnas (a town in Sao Miguel), they make this stew that they cook in the ground in the geysers… forget the name but it’s everywhere
- Try the queso fresco — this place has awesome cheese/wine: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g189135-d7259560-Reviews-Taberna_Acor-Ponta_Delgada_Sao_Miguel_Azores.html
- Go up to the North side of Sao Miguel to go eat at Canto do Cais. Reservation recommended. Great seafood.
- Steak… pretty much everywhere.
- Louvre Michaelanse for breakfast; there’s a coffee counter/shop and a restaurant next door that’s really picturesque (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g189135-d8515271-Reviews-Louvre_Michaelense-Ponta_Delgada_Sao_Miguel_Azores.html). Also solid internet if that’s something you’re looking for.
- I’d spend a couple days in Ponta Delgada and then try and find a hotel/farm house/airbnb out in the middle of the island in Sao Miguel… if I had to do it over again, that’s what I would do differently 🙂
[Back to Reid]
I explored both the islands of Sao Miguel and Terceira over eight days — since there are seven other islands there’s plenty for me to return to explore and for you to scale to your own schedule. I was constantly amazed at the scenery – everywhere I looked there was a new hill-side, scenic, road-side overlook, or beautiful grove of trees or a perfectly-manicured garden. It is truly the Hawaii of the Atlantic. Very few tourists and the roads are surprisingly great with zero traffic. If you are considering the Azores you should visit soon — these epic, accessible and friendly islands won’t stay a secret for much longer; inevitably the quaint, scenic landscapes and roads will be increasingly flowing with international visitors.